'Canine Partner Nicki gave me back my life'

'Canine Partner Nicki gave me back my life'
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Pics: Canine Partners

Gwyneira Waters was a young woman with her life ahead of her. Married, with a good job and a busy social life, she enjoyed playing the organ and loved to perform. But in 1993 Gwyneira (now 50) was involved in a car crash that left her with a devastating brain injury. Unable to function without daily help, she was resigned to the hand she had been dealt: days spent waiting for the next carer visit, or for husband Martyn (now 60) to return from work. “Being at home gave me no structure, but I was reliant on others to go out and didn’t want to do that either,” Gwyneira says. “You can’t blend into the background with a wheelchair and I didn’t want any fuss.”

Isolated and frustrated, Gwyneira felt she was a burden and would take respite centre breaks to give Martyn time to relax. In 2008, during one of these breaks, she discovered the charity Canine Partners – and then everything changed.

Canine Partners provides assistance dogs to help give back independence to people with physical disabilities. To her surprise, Gwyneira found herself applying for help and so began the matching process that led her to Nicki, a black Labrador. The remarkable pair have been together since 2010.

To see her bounding around, you’d think Nicki was just like any other dog; happy-go-lucky and full of beans. But like other Canine Partners across the UK, she is also a vital, daily assistant. In the five years they’ve been together, Nicki has helped Gwyneira to regain
her independence.

“Nicki has transformed my life,” Gwyneira beams. “She helps with lots of practical tasks – getting dressed, loading the washing machine, and retrieving my keys or the remote control.”

And Nicki’s service goes above and beyond that. Gwyneira can now enjoy her own garden because the clever Labrador has been taught how to pull the back door shut – something Gwyneira cannot do in her wheelchair. Gwyneira has also returned to community life, making shopping trips where Nicki retrieves items from shelves, and hands over money to the cashier – without batting an eyelid at the fuss and everyday goings-on around her.

“Martyn’s happier too,” says Gwyneira. “If I were taken ill while he’s away, he knows Nicki could bring me the phone to call him.” Many of Nicki’s duties were once Martyn’s, so she really has changed home life. But she’s also a willing mascot whenever the couple head to Cardiff, to cheer on the Welsh rugby team – thanks to the promise of an edible treat!

“Strangers talk to me now,” Gwyneira continues. “They ask after Nicki, but most importantly they treat me like a human being. Because she’s so clever and well- behaved, they realise I must be capable of a conversation. Everyone’s always impressed and I’m so proud of her.”

Gwyneira should also be proud of herself, having never owned dogs and suddenly being faced with the task of caring for a young Labrador. “We already had two cats, but they don’t need attention like dogs,” she says. “When we first brought Nicki home, one of the cats didn’t initially take to having a dog around and I worried that I had upset our home with an animal that needed lots of training and care.”

Thankfully, Canine Partners were supportive throughout. “Trainers visit frequently in the beginning, whereas now it’s just twice yearly. It took me and Nicki a good six months to get the hang of our routine but we had plenty of help and suddenly everything clicked.

“These dogs aren’t robots; they’ve left the home they grew up in to start again somewhere new. You have to build a relationship before you can reap the rewards.

“And the trainers helped me understand dogs,” Gwyneira adds. “Before I took Nicki on, they found me three matches and I liked all of them. Each could do what I asked. But the trainers spotted that Nicki had bonded with me. “Sure enough, when we were properly matched, Nicki ran straight up to me and put her head in my lap as if to say, ‘it’s you and me now.’

“These days I feel more than capable, and that’s all thanks to Canine Partners. They did everything possible to help me to be the best dog owner I can be – and gave me the necessary skills to look after Nicki.”

Today Gwyneira wants to raise awareness of these amazing dogs. Until that chance encounter in 2008, she had spent almost 30 years relying on others and was completely unaware Canine Partners existed. Now, in a startling turn of events, “Nicki has finally helped me join a local choir and get back into music, which was too much of a wrench before I had her. I’m quite happy to go with Nicki to concerts on our own, and she’ll happily snooze three hours away.

“It’s never too late to try something new, whatever life throws at you,” Gwyneira says. “At 30 and 40 I felt I had nothing to celebrate. But this year, I let Martyn organise a ‘surprise’ 50th birthday party for me. “I’m so lucky to have Nicki. Every morning she walks into my bedroom with a slipper in her mouth and I can’t help but smile. We’re true friends.”

Could a canine partner help you?

Canine Partners trains dogs to assist with practical tasks, enabling owners to regain independence. If you’re over 18, living in the UK, and you have a physical disability, then you are eligible to apply for a canine partner. If your application is successful you will be matched with a dog  and invited to attend and complete a two-week residential course before taking them home, with ongoing support.

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